Jennifer Berry’s peers know the world won’t last forever if they don’t sort out the mess left by previous generations. She’s dedicating her life to reversing climate change.
Jennifer Berry pulls on a white lab coat, puts on goggles and ties up her hair.
She knows she doesn’t look like what other people think of when they hear the word “scientist”. She’s always one of only a few girls in her physics and chemistry classes.
She remembers how it first felt to walk into the science lab and and see four other girls in a class of 30.
The problem is, “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
The 18-year-old Hobsonville Point Secondary School head student has made it her mission to be a visible female face in science, with the hope of showing younger girls it can be them as well.
It’s a political move, as well a personal one. She’s worried about women’s equality worsening if they’re locked out of growing science and technology fields. Next year, she’ll head down to Canterbury University to study engineering. The independence of leaving home appeals, as does escaping Auckland’s cost of living and constant traffic.
Despite having grown up on the fringes of Auckland, she’s not a city girl. Mountain biking, trail running, hiking - that’s what she loves. Whenever she can, she’ll escape to run on one of Auckland’s west coast beaches, pounding the sand of the desolate, rugged, windswept stretches.
Bar the lifeguard’s tower poking out of the dunes and the few lone surfers paddling through the whitewash, the beach could be a scene from centuries ago. But Auckland’s landscape is changing, for the worse. When Jennifer runs across the sand, that’s front and centre in her mind.
“We’re at the point now where it’s not just a polluted river or some rubbish in the forest - lives are at risk,” she says.
Turning the tide on climate change is top of her to-do list.
It’s not something we can ignore any more. As a generation we need to step up and address it.
For Jennifer, stepping up means using the knowledge she’ll gain from an engineering degree to develop technologies that will lessen the impact of climate change. Young people didn’t get themselves into this mess. But they’re the ones who are having to dig their way out. And they’re angry.
Teenagers are often portrayed in the media as being disengaged, apathetic and attached to their phones. Jennifer is one of 84 student leaders from across Auckland who Stuff surveyed as part of Polite Rebellion, a project examining the lives, goals and fears of a generation of school leavers.
They say they feel under-represented in politics and that their voices aren’t being heard.
Climate change and the environment is one of their biggest worries - 41 per cent say they’re very concerned, 52 per cent are somewhat concerned and 7 per cent are neutral about the issue. Not a single student says they’re not concerned.
Teenagers are leaving school facing “every mistake previous generations have made” Westlake Girls’ High School head prefect Izzy Sheild says.
Izzy Sheild, head prefect of Westlake Girls’ High School. (SUPPLIED)
In the next 100 years the world will not be as it is today ... for all the wrong reasons.
Like Jennifer, her ambitions are about helping right those wrongs. She calls herself a “passionate and determined humanitarian” and envisions working for the United Nations in a few years, advocating for human rights, equality, and an end to conflict.
Northcote College head girl Hannah Burton also puts the blame at the feet of past generations. A “series of bad decisions influenced by greed” have damaged the environment, she says, and she worries it will be difficult to “resurrect” what’s been lost.
That’s the thing that makes climate change and environmental destruction different for this generation: It’s already changing their daily lives.
Rosmini College head boy Michael Slessor-White usually spends his holidays swimming, surfing and surf lifesaving at Auckland beaches. But last summer he was stuck on the shore after “watching the pollution warning signs go up on Milford and Takapuna beaches”.
It’s not just water quality. Tāmaki Drive flooding after severe storms; a new sinkhole opening up in New Lynn; having to raise the North Western motorway by 1.5m because of rising sea levels are all signs that Auckland’s climate is changing, Auckland Council’s chief sustainability officer John Mauro says.
Michael Slessor-White, head boy of Rosmini College.
And it’s only going to get worse. Last year, Auckland Council commissioned NIWA to produce a report on the region’s climate change projections. It found temperatures across Auckland are set to increase, which could affect productivity. We’re also likely to see more extreme weather events - including changes in seasonal rainfall patterns and more frequent droughts. Sea level rise is expected to occur more rapidly.
ACG Parnell College deputy head girl Emily Zeng is doing her bit - she’s been a vegan for two years and after finishing school plans to volunteer for a month overseas, working with animals or in a vegan bakery. She says global warming is “terrifying” and she fears her generation will live with regret once they come to terms with the consequences of their actions.
Emily Zeng, deputy head girl of ACG Parnell College. (SUPPLIED)
Although awareness for the environment is on the rise, the general consensus and attitude towards caring for the environment is pretty lax. I feel as if this problem is an urgent one and requires immediate action, especially because once the damage is done, it's practically irreversible.
Katie Marshall has used her platform as deputy head girl at Marist College to encourage her classmates to embrace green practices. Now that she’s leaving school and pursuing degrees in law and the arts, she hopes to inspire more people to make lifestyle changes to reduce waste and carbon emissions.
“We are so ingrained in this new age consumerist society, that we forget about what impact each and every one of us actually has. Not everything is about completing things as easily and at as fast a pace as new aged technology has taught us,” she says.
“The problem is that people don't understand how imminent the consequences of human activity on our environment are - global warming is already affecting the Pacific Islands - and even if we do have some knowledge on problems such as plastic, everybody complains but does nothing about it.”
Because of older people’s inaction, Marshall feels it’s up to her generation to “literally save the earth”.
But it shouldn’t just be down to young people to fix past mistakes, experts say.
Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick Swarbrick, 24, is “grouchy” about the fact that the onus of cleaning up the environment is being put on young people.
Although she warns “intergenerational warfare” won’t benefit anyone, decision makers need to take their responsibilities very seriously when it comes to curbing climate change. Communities must put pressure on those in authority and hold them accountable, she says.
Auckland Council’s John Mauro agrees - while youth “play a really critical role,” older people need to do their bit too.
Each moment we waste debating whether we’re gutsy enough to make a change, we impact our kids and their kids.
As well as affecting the environment, climate change is taking a toll on human health. It will worsen inequality - more vulnerable communities, including the young and old and those on low incomes, will have fewer choices, with many unable to afford to move out of areas affected by climate change, such as suburbs prone to flooding, Mauro says.
“You’ll see climate change really dealing a stronger blow to those who have less means to deal with the issues themselves,” Mauro says.
But the future doesn’t have to be quite so bleak - Aucklanders can reduce, or perhaps even reverse, some of the effects of climate change by taking strong and definitive action. For real change to happen a shift in thinking is needed, Mauro says.
“Our choices themselves need to get better. At the moment we don’t have the choices we need - we have bad and less bad choices. At the moment, boardrooms don’t reflect their shareholders.”
People are losing their houses to erosion and flooding, but their voices often go unheard by those in power, he says. Auckland Council is developing the Climate Action Plan, which will look at how to transition Auckland’s economy and society to a zero or low carbon future while preparing for climate change.
The plan is as much about generating discussion as coming up with solutions, Mauro says. The council is crowdsourcing ideas and meeting with central government, mana whenua, businesses, communities, as well as youth groups.
Amy Irvine, 18, advocates for young people’s perspectives when it comes to the future of the environment by her work on the council’s Youth Advisory Panel, which provides the council with feedback about its plans. Irvine says she and her peers need to make sure they’re heard loud and clear.
“We’ve got to say ‘hey what is the future that you are imagining and what can we do to help to ensure that those needs are going to be met?’
I think young people have a large capacity to advocate, get their voices heard out there and say ‘this is our country, this is what we’re inheriting’.
But Tyler Sullivan, head girl of Glendowie College, is skeptical about whether the average young Aucklander can make much of a difference.
"A lot of the power to take this action is in the hands of major corporations that produce carbon emissions, which makes it very difficult for younger generations to have much control over what they do."
Reporting: Brittany Keogh and Josephine Franks
Visuals: Lawrence Smith
Animation and design: Kathryn George
Data: Andy Fyers
Development: John Harford
Editors: John Hartevelt and Blair Ensor